Anyone familiar with Andy Griffith’s work on his TV shows The Andy Griffith Show or Matlock will remember his vernacular and his mannerisms. As an actor he was deep and quiet like a Southern night and as deceptive too. His drawl may have fooled people into thinking he was a country bumpkin, but as you came to discover in both TV shows (and his life), Griffith was a genius (comic and otherwise).
I always watched The Andy Griffith Show with my family as a kid, and the thing I recall right away is the music and iconic whistling from the opening credits. The most important part of that few seconds was seeing Andy and his son Opie (played by Ron Howard) walking with their poles toward the fishing hole. It set the tone for the entire series, for it always came down to Andy playing a decent, hard-working widower and father who loved his son more than anything. That came through in every episode, and I still feel the strength that relationship projected to me as a kid, and I knew I was lucky to have the same kind of relationship with my own Dad.
Of course, the show was a comedy and Andy played the sheriff of Mayberry, a small North Carolina town. In many ways Andy was the straight man, especially in relation to his wacky deputy Barney Fife, played to perfection by Don Knotts. Andy never wore a gun, but he allowed Barney to wear one unloaded (with one bullet in his shirt pocket). This proved to be the basis of many funny situations to be sure.
The rest of the characters were colorful and perfectly cast: Francis Bavier as Andy’s Aunt Bea (who helps him raise Opie), Howard McNear as the odd barber Floyd, Jim Nabors as town mechanic Gomer Pyle (later replaced by George Lindsay as cousin Goober), town drunk Otis (Hal Smith), and Howard the goofy town clerk (Jack Dodson). Much of the fun centered on problems in the town that Andy would eventually solve. Many times it was Opie who had a conflict, and you knew that his father would be there to help him even before Opie decided to let him know about it.
That show ran for eight seasons and ended in 1968, and Griffith dropped out of public view for a long time after that, but in 1986 his career was resurrected when he played lawyer Ben Matlock on Matlock. Here again his genius and timing was as strong as ever. His adversaries would underestimate him or think he was a dumb country lawyer, but Matlock (a Harvard Law grad) was a sly Southern fox who outwitted them again and again.
After Matlock ended in 1995, Griffith seemed to disappear again, but he turned up in occasional guest appearances on TV shows. In recent years he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 from George W. Bush, and in 2008 he campaigned for President Obama. He lived out his remaining years in Roanoke Island, North Carolina, in a small town much like Mayberry, and he died at age 86 on July 3, 2012.
Griffith never won an Emmy for his roles, and that had more to do with those voting than his performances. While many current actors seem to play themselves again and again (think Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler and so on) back in those days it had more to do with the method of acting. Actors invested time and energy inhabiting a part, manifesting roles with intensity and grit. Griffith just sauntered around the screen as if he was standing in his living room. Perhaps he made it look too easy, but that’s the whole point. His acting was effortless, and it was pure joy to watch him.
I will always remember Andy Griffith’s gentle comic genius and the lesson he taught about fatherhood in his first TV show. Andy is off to that great fishing hole once again, whistling all the way. Perhaps he will be joined there by his good friend Don Knotts and other old friends. Rest in peace, Andy Griffith.
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